Guest Post with Carrie Bailey
Unlike Caitlin, who has written a YA book about a 15 year old boy with ADHD titled Welcome H.O.E.M., I haven’t tackled the challenge of creating a main character with hyperactivity and attention deficit issues. But, I did include a sidekick in my recent novel with all the same problems that I’ve faced my entire life.
Or something… what were we talking about again?
Yeah, writing about characters with ADHD when you have ADHD is an interesting two-part conversation. But, let’s forget the debates and controversies around the diagnosis, whether it is over diagnosed, the medication options, whether it is over medicated, the role of genetics and environmental factors and just consider the experiences of people who have problems at school and at work, because it’s just harder for them to focus and sit still.
From personal experience, I can tell you it’s challenging. And it was even harder helping my son navigate all the expectations of dealing with ADHD in a school environment. As a small kid, he would come home happy and excited about things he learned or people he met. He loved learning, but his teachers often found him disruptive, always off topic and off schedule. And over time that had an impact.
ADHD often comes with painful social consequences. When my son was little, I could not convince him that the teachers calling him ADHD didn’t really mean he was STUPID. It was what the other kids thought and that’s how he experienced it.
My mother, aunt and uncle were all calm, steady and duller conversationalists than a rock lying on the side of the road in Boring, Oregon, but they were excellent elementary school teachers. Unfortunately, they made sure I knew my differences were a problem before I ever understood what the problem really was. They had a dream to help me, and then later my son, be “normal.” To sit when there was nothing to do. To be silent when there were people to meet and get to know. To keep our hands to ourselves when there was something interesting right within our grasp. To memorize things that we knew would be quickly forgotten. To stay and finish what we were doing when we had a great idea about something else of equal priority. To waste the daylight when it was the perfect weather to run and climb and jump. To let the hours and years of our lives pass without seizing each moment and living it to the fullest.
Although I can’t speak for everyone with ADHD, I’m trying to convey to the best of my ability how it feels. All the desires to act in the moment always feel reasonable and no matter how much we care for the people around us, social expectations form a prison where the bars close in on us slowly until in a claustrophobic-like fit we are compelled to break our bonds and do something which will likely get us in trouble. While having ADHD made it easy for me to empathize with my son when he presented with the same issues, as a parent experiencing the other side, I spent most of the time feeling harassed and helpless. My family, teachers and coworkers suffered and for a long time, I didn’t understand why.
Many tears of frustration and fear for my wellbeing were shed, a process which seemed to repeat when my son started school. We found ways to cope eventually, but both times getting there often felt like a battle.
And we were not alone in feeling mystified by why it had to be so hard. If we consider that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates childhood diagnosis of ADHD at 11% of the population, then it’s easy to understand how these issues are both common for parents and statistically inevitable for teachers. It is not a lonely problem. It does not have to be isolating.
There are a VERY large number of people who become obnoxious when confined in a classroom or a cubicle. More than 1 in 10. But, it is new for every kid who has to deal with it.
Many people have speculated that the characteristics, which make classrooms challenging, may have had an evolutionary advantage. That was the premise I worked with when I began writing a preadolescent character with ADHD named Amit for my novel, The Ishim Underground.
In a nomadic culture, we’ve observed that the distractibility means early awareness of threat or danger. The inability to follow directions and remain on task often translates to innovation and creative problem solving when allowed to run free. The rejection of routine and order might have meant the flexibility to adapt to changing environments. Being impulsive could have its advantage in quick responses and no hesitation when an opportunity was presented.
In my novel, the main character, Eron, is the polar opposite of Amit. He’s reserved, an excellent student and highly organized to a fault. He meets Amit after being effectively expelled from a village during this first job as a young adult while two gray-haired nomadic women are robbing him. Later, as they travel together, Amit teaches him how to live on the road while he teaches Amit how to read. Amit hunts, he wanders off and doesn’t listen when Eron gets too dull. But without Amit’s help, the giant genetically modified house cats that roam the wasteland would probably have eaten Eron. Amit’s ADHD helps them both survive.
It was a rewarding process for me to explore the advantages of ADHD through writing.
For writers, I believe understanding ADHD is paramount, because it affects not only the 1 in 10 experiencing the issues associated with these characteristics, but everyone who knows and loves them. And most novels have enough characters that ADHD would be likely to make an appearance, however minor, in at least one of the characters lives.
It may be a surprise to people without ADHD that in a creative environment most of us leverage our attention span well, capturing the bursts of insight and inspiration and make the most of the intense hyper focus that comes when we are engaged with something we truly love.
Knowing the issues intimately, the real challenge for me was writing from the perspective of someone without ADHD who was observing someone with ADHD. I have more sympathy for my family, my former teachers, my son’s teachers, my employers and our friends. Consciously choosing to incorporate ADHD in my work helped me see beyond the occasional discrimination to understanding the complexity of communicating about the associated issues from different perspectives. I found the experience invaluable.
Of course, I’m still shamelessly happy to be the way I am, but writing about ADHD has helped me forgive the people who were unhappy with my son or me climbing up the walls. And for us, that was the piece of the puzzle that was missing. A mutual understanding and appreciation for how we are different.
Carrie Bailey is the author of The Ishim Underground a YA Science Fiction novel set 500 years in New Zealand’s future. You can connect with her on Twitter @PeevishPenman or find her at her blog or website, CarrieBaileyBooks.com.